Following a 108-98 victory in Game 5 of the Western Conference quarterfinals, the Houston Rockets will look to knot their first-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers at three games apiece Friday night.
Once facing a 3-1 series deficit, the Rockets have been presented with a golden opportunity to take Terry Stotts' faltering Blazers to task in Game 6 and send the series to a decisive seventh game, one that would be played in front of Houston's home crowd.
In the Game 5 win, Dwight Howard led all Houston scorers with 22 points (9-of-15 shooting) and 14 rebounds, while Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons added 21 and 20 points, respectively.
However, James Harden struggled once again, managing 17 points on just 5-of-15 shooting (1-of-7 from three).
In order to close things out, Portland will need a much stronger performance from LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored a meager eight points on 3-of-12 shooting Wednesday evening.
Seeds: Houston Rockets No. 4; Portland Trail Blazers No. 5
Series: Portland leads Houston, 3-2
Schedule for Series: Game 6 Friday, May 2, 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN); Game 7, Sunday, May 4 (ABC)*
* = If necessary, time TBD.
Key Storylines for Portland Trail Blazers
Can the Portland Trail Blazers advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2000?
Postseason prosperity has largely eluded the Blazers since the new Millennium, as the team has lost in the first round of the playoffs six times since the start of the 2000-01 season, per Basketball-Reference.
Consider this: The last time Portland found any semblance of extended postseason success, the team's three leading scorers were Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen and Steve Smith.
And with the Blazers desperately needing a win so as to avoid returning to a raucous Toyota Center, look for Portland to come out with considerable energy on the offensive end.
Game 5 marked the only time this series that a team has been held under 100 points, which was highly uncharacteristic of an offense that's generated a playoff-best 112.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.
The key to a win will be getting LaMarcus Aldridge back on track after an uncharacteristic eight-point, 12-shot effort on Wednesday.
As seen below, Aldridge has burned the Rockets from a variety of locations all series long, including the dreaded 16-24 foot range, where he's been know to make some serious hay.
And as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes noted following Game 5, Portland should expect a bounce-back effort Friday night:
If Aldridge had been able to put up just one more 20-point effort, it's possible we'd be talking about who the Blazers were going to face in the second round right now. It's absolutely within reason to expect another terrific effort from him in Portland's next contest, but the fact remains: If he'd been merely decent in Game 5, the Blazers would already be moving on.
Portland will also need to try and tighten things up on the glass. After being out-rebounded, 48-34, in Game 5, Portland saw its nightly rebounding average drop to 44.4 a night in the playoffs. During the regular season, the Blazers pulled down an average of 46.4 rebounds a night.
Through five games, the Rockets have hauled in more than 50 boards a game.
Lastly, Portland needs to play off the success of point guard Damian Lillard. According to NBA.com, Lillard recently became the first player since Tim Hardaway in 1991 to record at least 125 points and 35 assists in his first five career playoff games.
Key Storylines for Houston Rockets
Plain and simple, the Houston Rockets are fighting for their playoff lives.
Although coming back from a 3-1 series deficit once felt improbable, things are starting to shape up for Kevin McHale's boys after a convincing Game 5 victory.
And you better believe every one of McHale's troops is looking to extend the series to seven games.
"I don't want to go on vacation," Dwight Howard told the Associated Press (via ESPN). "I want to win. I want to give everything I've got. Every night, put my heart into it and sacrifice my body and do whatever I can to help this team win. It's not going to be easy."
In order to accomplish the team's goal of stretching things the distance, shooting guard James Harden will need to play his best game of the series.
Following Wednesday's Game 5, Harden's now averaging 25.4 points on a staggering 23.4 field-goal attempts while shooting a putrid 34.7 percent from the field and 25 percent from three.
His shot chart tells a story equally as grim:
After posting a career-best player efficiency rating of 23.5 during the regular season, Harden's PER has plummeted to 15.2 in the postseason in tandem with a tremendous drop in his effective field-goal percentage.
One reason for the newfound inefficiency?
According to Basketball-Reference, Harden attempted 27.4 percent of his shots between 0-3 feet and only 7.7 percent of his shots between 10-16 feet. In the postseason, those numbers have shifted to 13.6 percent at the rim and 15.3 percent between 10-16 feet.
|James Harden's Shot Distribution: Regular Season vs. Postseason|
|Shot Location||Regular Season||Postseason|
|16 feet-three-point line||12.4%||14.4%|
That shot distribution indicates Portland has made it particularly difficult for The Beard to get things done in the paint, instead opting to let him try and beat the team from mid-range. As a result, Harden's attempted just 7.6 free throws per game, down from a mark of 9.1 during the regular season.
For the Rockets, it comes down to point guard play.
Jeremy Lin was sensational in Game 5, scoring 21 points in 31 minutes off the bench. In fact, Lin's been steady in Houston's two wins, scoring a combined 34 points on 14-of-26 shooting.
In three losses, Lin's scored a combined 23 points on 7-of-22 shooting. Even more telling: During losses in Games 2 and 4, Lin managed to score just one field goal per contest.
Defensively, Houston will need Patrick Beverley to step up and mitigate Lillard's explosiveness. After a sterling regular season, Beverley's defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) has ballooned to 108, according to Basketball-Reference, while the Rockets have posted a net rating of minus-2.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor against the Blazers, per NBA.com.
As for Portland, it will need another breakout performance from Wesley Matthews.
Since shooting 2-of-7 from the field in a Game 3 loss, Matthews torched the Rockets to the tune of 21 and 27 points, respectively, in Games 4 and 5.
Not only that, but Matthews had held Harden in check on the other end of the floor and made him work for every bucket on the perimeter.
After the Blazers made just nine three-pointers in Game 5, expect Matthews and the rest of the team's perimeter guns to come out locked, loaded and ready to fire away.
Key Matchup: Chandler Parsons vs. Nicolas Batum
Following Houston's Game 1 loss, Rockets swingman Chandler Parsons made a declaration that caught the attention of prognosticators around the Association: He's the best small forward in the series.
“100 percent, I’m the best,” Parsons told CSNNW.com.
But his primary adversary—Portland's Nicolas Batum—wasn't so sure.
“He said that?” Batum asked CSNNW.com. “He’s not going to say, ‘Nic is the best.’ I understand that, but we’ll see. We’ll see at the end. I don’t care about that.”
|Tale of the Tape: Batum vs. Parsons in the Playoffs|
|Player||PPG||RPG||APG||Player Efficiency Rating (PER)|
Through five games, the two have played to a near-draw from a statistical standpoint. However, Batum's defense has been stronger, as he's helped limit Parsons to 44.3 percent shooting, down nearly three points from his regular season mark of 47.2
Both clubs are loaded with perimeter weapons and dependent upon the three-pointer to jump start their offenses, so expect Batum and Parsons to have a major say in the outcome of Game 6.
Wednesday's 10-point loss aside, the Blazers have unquestionably been the better team from a macro perspective.
Not only have they been the NBA's best offense during the playoffs, but their defense has also been incrementally better than the Rockets' thus far.
According to NBA.com, the Blazers have posted a defensive rating of 110.4, which grades out as the third-worst mark this postseason. However, the Rockets have been two points worse, allowing 112.5 points per 100 possessions.
Dwight Howard, James Harden and Co. may feel like they're back on the winning track, but as Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding pointed out earlier this week, the Rockets don't feel like a championship-caliber club:
Harden, 24, and Howard, 28, clearly have their own priorities. Those include Howard getting his touches in the post—and Harden getting Howard out of the lane for room to drive. So the Rockets look like great players but don't even look like a good team.
Houston saw plenty of success during Howard's first year in H-Town, but a fruitful run will conclude Friday evening when the Blazers cap things off in style at Moda Center.
Prediction: Blazers defeat Rockets, 112-103
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and current as of Thursday, May 1.
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